Discipleship or Salvation?
Discipleship or salvation? Think I can really say that? Make a distinction, a dichotomy, an adverse relation between being a disciple of Christ and being saved? That's heresy to the contemporary church. Discipleship is what it's all about, and they have Matthew 28 as a proof text. "Go make disciples of all nations," says Jesus. I say pay close attention to a text where Jesus rebuked His disciples not to tell anyone He was the Christ, said Peter was Satan and dying was living.
But doesn't our text lay out neatly discipleship like the contemporary, emerging, cutting edge church likes it? There it is in black and white. Deny yourself; take up your cross; follow Jesus. They are 3 commands, 3 Greek imperatives. From Jesus' standpoint you absolutely must do these 3 things if you're to be a disciple. Right here is a sermon, a Bible class, a small group study, a 3 step program that could easily be expanded to get the requisite 12: Title - Discipleship 101. Step 1 Denying Self. Step 2 - Taking Up Your Cross. Step 3 Following Jesus.
So how's that working out for you? Doing pretty good with denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus? Don't lower the basketball goal now. That's what the boys use to do. The goal could be adjusted down from 10 to 6 feet. They did that and proceeded to dunk the basketball acting as if they were big time NBA players. They lowered the standard and acted as if they met the original one.
People do that with these imperatives. Sure I deny myself except when someone disrespects me, insults me, or doesn't give me my due. Sure I take up my cross except when it doesn't make sense to me; I have a good reason to set it down, or it gets too heavy. Sure I follow Jesus except when He leads in a direction I don't want to go, it's embarrassing, or it costs too much. If we're honest, if we're not lowering the basketball goal, we're shooting air balls, clinkers, embarrassing ourselves when it comes to discipleship.
Here's where those who preach a doable discipleship always get you. God wouldn't command something you are not able to do. He clearly commands self-denial, cross bearing, and following, so you must be able to do these. "Look," they ask, "did you command your children to do things they couldn't do?" I sure did if they were full of themselves and thought they were wise enough, strong enough, old enough to do something I knew they weren't. I commanded the toddler to pick up the bag of potatoes to show him he couldn't. I commanded the teenager to make his own decision, so he might find out he lacked the wisdom to make it. I commanded the pre-teen to go and live on his own if he was so sure he could.
Get out of your head that God's commands give you the ability to keep them. Look at the context here. Peter thinks he knows better than Jesus. Peter is minding the things of men rather than the things of God and in doing so he's being Satanic. To knock him off his high horse, Jesus throws before him 3 commands he can't do to make him stumble. To make Peter see that on his own he can't be a disciple of Jesus.
Jesus sums the impossibility up in a phrase. A hit TV series did something like this in its first season. The task, the mission, for the "Heroes" TV series was, "Save the cheerleader; save the world." Jesus says the only way to be a disciple, deny self, take up your cross, and follow Him is "lose life save soul." Now do you see the impossibility of discipleship? You're going to do what is psychologically nuts: lose your life to save it? You're going to do what is physically impossible: hold you're breath until you die so your soul is saved? You're going to what is spiritually impossible: be more faithful than Peter and the apostles who denied Jesus, dropped their crosses, and ran away from Jesus thereby loosing their souls to save their lives?
I admit discipleship is laid out neatly in this text, but so is salvation. It's not in who you are but in who Jesus is. Jesus is not just a man, not even a Superman, Jesus is the Christ. The name Christ means anointed one. Jesus, born of Mary, is the One anointed by God to be the Savior of humanity.
Our text takes place just 9 months before Good Friday and Easter; Jesus has made a big splash. Crowds were coming out to hear Him. We read this summer how they numbered upwards of 25,000 at a time. You internet people would say He had lots of followers on Twitter, many likes on Facebook, He was trending, He was being buzzed up. So Jesus takes His apostles away from it all to make sure they got who He really was. He starts asking who do people say I am. They were saying He was John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. That's some impressive company. Any man would be proud to be in it, but that's the point. They were all just men and Jesus was much more than that.
Matthew's account of this puts it in stark relief. It's like "Save the cheerleader save the world" and "Loose your life save your soul." Jesus asks," Who do people say the Son of Man is?" And Peter relies, "You're the Son of God." The Son of Man is the Son of God. This flesh and blood Man is none other than God in the flesh. It's not right to worship or pray to a man, but this Man is God and He is to be worshipped and prayed to. The body and blood of any other man gets life from God; this Man's Body and Blood have life in themselves because they're the Body and Blood of God.
Don't look at who you are. Stop looking at how you never deny yourself they way you should; how you're always dropping your cross; how you're consistently following something other than Jesus. Look at who Jesus is. A human being just like you, but more than that. He's truly God come down to your time and space in your flesh and blood.
Salvation is not in what you do or don't do. Salvation is in what Jesus did and didn't do. This is the part where Peter, the others, and we too turn away. But if we turn away here our only hope of being saved is in perfectly denying our self, picking up our cross, and following Jesus. Our only hope of being saved is in absolute perfect discipleship, and that's a ship that can only sink, at least in my case.
Don't turn away. God the Son is in your flesh and blood because He must suffer many things; He must be rejected by the church; He must be killed. Literally what Jesus says is that these 3 things are necessary. What? Jesus was the perfect disciple. Look how often He denied Himself. When people demanded His time and attention, He didn't get upset, didn't make excuses. He denied Himself. Did Jesus pick up His cross? He put up with sinful parents raising him and sinful brothers and sisters picking on Him. He put up with sinful disciples correcting Him and one plotting against Him. Did Jesus follow the path God wanted Him to? He only did the things that pleased His Father.
Jesus was perfect yet it was necessary for Him to suffer many things, to be rejected by the church, and be killed. From God's point of view it was necessary for these things to happen to Jesus if you were going to be saved. Do you or do you not deserve to suffer many things? Can any of us say the church has no reason to reject us? Are our sins worthy of death? If you don't think you deserve to suffer many things, be rejected by the church, and to die for your sins, then stop listening. You go back to discipleship. You go back to saving your self by self-denial, cross carrying, and following Jesus, and I'll see you on Judgment Day when your thoughts, words, deeds, and discipleship will be weighed in the balance of perfection.
But if you see all your attempts at discipleship can only earn you more judgment, more wrath, more punishment, then see what Jesus did in your place. Jesus, the perfect disciple, suffered, was rejected, and killed to bear all the judgment, wrath, and punishment you rightly deserve, fear, and expect. God the Son took on flesh and blood so He could take your place as the perfect disciple and be the perfect sacrifice for your sinful discipleship.
Did you notice what I left out? I left it out because the apostles didn't hear it and I want to be sure you do. Jesus didn't just say it was necessary for Him to suffer, be rejected, and be killed. He also said it was necessary for Him to rise on the third day. We wear crucifixes, have crucifixes in our homes and church, but we don't leave Jesus on the cross. He was taken down from that cross stone, cold dead. Then He was buried, but God the Father didn't leave Him in that tomb. He raised Him.
It was necessary for Jesus to suffer, be rejected, and die to pay for the sins of the world. Once He did that. One He satisfied the wrath of God and atoned for the sins of the world, Death had no reason to hold Him and God the Father raised God the Son: declaring to the world by this act that all sins were paid for, all His wrath was satisfied, and all were free to come to Him in Jesus' name for salvation, for forgiveness.
The Greek word translated life here can be translated soul, self, or life. Jesus came to save your soul, your life, your self. It's true. He came to make your soul, life, self a disciple. It's true; your soul, self, life is being called today to discipleship. But don't you dare have one self denying thought, utter one word accepting your cross, or take one step toward following Jesus, until your salvation is firmly in place.
Since all sins of your soul have already been suffered for by Jesus, you're not to expect suffering for them. Since for all the failings of your self Jesus was already rejected, you're not to expect rejection. Since Jesus already died for the sins of your life, you are no longer to face death with your sins. You're saved to be a disciple, but your discipleship didn't, doesn't, can't save you. Jesus did, does, and can. Your discipleship will always be imperfect; Jesus' salvation is always perfect. Saved is what you are in Jesus' name; disciple is what you are called to be. Be what you are; be redeemed, restored, forgiven, saved by Jesus and you'll be a disciple. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (20120923); Mark 8: 27-35